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Veteran confronts rape, suicide: 'I am angry that others are going through this'

By Moni Basu, CNN
September 21, 2013 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Jack Williams attempted suicide after being raped by his drill sergeant in 1966.
Jack Williams attempted suicide after being raped by his drill sergeant in 1966.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sexual assault is one of two high-profile problems plaguing the military; suicide is the other
  • Jack Williams speaks out in "Justice Denied," which focuses on male victims of sexual assault in military
  • Study: Military victims of violent assault are six times more likely to attempt suicide

Seattle (CNN) -- Jack Williams rejects the table the hostess has chosen in the middle of the Mexican restaurant. He asks for the least desirable faux-leather booth in the back corner, where he can sit with his back to the wall. He can't stand to have people come up behind him. That's what his rapist, an assistant drill sergeant in the Air Force, did almost 50 years ago.

It happened three times, always at about 3 in the morning.

After the third time, Williams walked into the shower at his barracks at Lackland Air Force Base, tied a few towels together and tried to hang himself. Security guards found him unconscious.

A part of Williams died that day in 1966. He was 18. He has not been whole since.

Now 66, he looks back and ponders what his life might have been had he accomplished what he set out to do: to serve his country with pride. Instead, he has lived with rape for 47 years, with permanent injuries that make him depend on a walker, with words like "pansy" and "coward" ingrained in his head.

Sexual assault is one of two high-profile problems plaguing the military; suicide is the other: Twenty-two veterans take their lives every day.

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Williams harbors both demons in his head. He is caught in the nexus of the military's two tragedies.

In May, the Pentagon released results of an anonymous survey on sexual assault: Twenty-six thousand service members reported that they had been sexually assaulted or harassed in 2012, up from 19,000 the previous year.

Women get most of the attention on this issue because, proportionately, their numbers are much higher. Women make up only about 15% of the active-duty force but account for 47% of sexual assault victims.

Headline-grabbing scandals have usually involved women. Two decades ago, at the Navy's "Tailhook" convention in Las Vegas, drunken aviators assaulted female recruits. Five years later, the Army brought charges against 12 commissioned and noncommissioned officers for the sexual assault of female trainees at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. Most recently, 22 instructors were convicted in the Air Force's worst sex scandal at Lackland, where Williams was raped almost five decades ago.

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It's men like him who make up most of the military's sexual assault cases, even though they are less likely to report their assaults. The Pentagon survey found 13,900 male victims. But 76% do not file complaints.

"There's an assumption that rape doesn't happen to men, or they must have been weak and not strong enough to fight (an assailant) off," says Sue Garrison, a psychologist at the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System in Florida.

Bay Pines is the only Department of Veterans Affairs facility in America that offers residential treatment for male victims of military sexual assault as well as women. Evidence suggests that men may suffer more severe symptoms and are less likely to get help, raising the specter of other problems, like suicide.

Williams Oak Tree
Williams recalls time spent on this fishing pier with his daughter as among the best days of his life.
Stuart Isett for CNN

The causes of suicide are complicated and not wholly understood, but a contributing factor among veterans is sexual trauma.

A study by former Air Force psychologist Craig Bryan found that military victims of violent assault or rape were six times more likely to attempt suicide than nonvictims.

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One key reason is the enormous sense of betrayal that service members feel when they are assaulted by a brother in arms. The loss of trust is magnified, says Bryan, because the military is such a tight-knit organization whose success depends on group unity and cohesion. And there is little action a victim can take other than report it.

"When it happens, you can't just quit your job or move barracks," Bryan says. "So victims feel more trapped and violated." They may worry about retribution and the impact on their careers.

A string of recent sexual assault cases has ratcheted up pressure on the military and Congress to curb the problem. One scandal involved the Air Force's former head of sexual assault prevention himself, Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, who was arrested in May after he allegedly grabbed a woman's breasts and buttocks.

For Williams, change will come too late. But it's long overdue.

"I am angry that others are going through this," he says. "If it isn't kept in the spotlight, it will go back to business as usual."

And that means more men with the most honorable intentions are destined to suffer -- and maybe even die.

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It's not just about the rape

Williams tells his story on a drive from the Mexican restaurant to a split-level brick house in the suburban city of Bellevue, the childhood home where he nurtured his dreams.

In 1966, some young men feared the Vietnam War enough to dodge the draft. Williams could have, too. A bout of rheumatic fever at 3 could have made him eligible for a medical exemption because the ailment can lead to heart damage. But Williams volunteered for the Air Force.

His grandfather fought in World War I. His uncle fought in the Battle of the Bulge during World War II. His father was in the Army. Williams figured it was his turn. He was suited for that line of work. At 14, he'd gone through rigorous training to become a police cadet. Besides, it was a matter of honor.

In June, he reported to Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio, Texas. It was where the fresh blood was trained, transformed in a matter of weeks from frightened young men to warriors. There were no calendars, no watches allowed in boot camp. One cadet scratched marks on the wall to count the days.

The only respite from a brutal regimen came in the few hours of sleep. But even that was taken from Williams soon after his arrival.

Williams Oak Tree
"I planted that in September of '65," he says of the oak at his former family home. "It was only 6 feet tall then."
Stuart Isett for CNN

In the barracks, 46 guys slept on the top bunks, 46 on the bottom.

In the dead of night, the assistant drill sergeant woke Williams and ordered him to a second-floor office.

Williams stood before the sergeant in his government-issue T-shirt and boxers. He stared straight ahead, like he was supposed to. Suddenly, the sergeant choked him, threw him on the floor.

"He was all over me. He was raping me."

After it was over, Williams cleaned himself up and went back to bed.

"In the military, everyone pulls together. I did not want to be the one who let everyone down."

During training, the cadets were not allowed to make phone calls. They were not allowed to leave base. Williams kept the rape to himself, afraid to report a superior and ashamed of what others would think.

"In 1966, to be labeled a homosexual was like being labeled a child molester," he says.

Then, a few days later, it happened again. And again. The drill sergeant beat him and knee-dropped onto his kidneys. Williams was afraid to fall asleep at night. To stay awake, he sewed buttons and patches on his fellow cadets' uniforms.

To make matters worse, Williams fell hard on rocks during a physical training exercise and damaged his back. He was scarred for life, physically and mentally.

After the third rape, he went to talk to the drill sergeant. By then, other cadets had reported seeing blood in Williams' urine. His bladder was damaged, but he was not hospitalized until many weeks later. Only one kidney was functioning then. He remembers being told in the hospital that he might not make it.

By December of that year, the Air Force career that Williams coveted was over. He was honorably discharged for medical reasons and sent home to suburban Seattle.

"I did not get timely and appropriate medical care. They discharged me when I wasn't dischargeable. Like a dummy, I kept doing what they told me to do."

Williams tried to resume life in Seattle. He bought a house on Bellevue Way even before he got married so that he would not have to start a family in an apartment. He got jobs at Boeing and other places. But he couldn't make anything work.

He tried school and attended Bellevue Community College from 1972 to 1974. But he couldn't finish his degree.

Physical problems plagued him around the clock. He soiled himself constantly from the damage to his bladder and took pills to kill the back and neck pain. He suffered from depression. He slept with a light on. He had difficulty making decisions and lacked self-esteem.

He got married four times over the course of several decades. He didn't think he deserved a wife -- he called himself "damaged goods" -- so he settled for anyone willing to put up with him. All his marriages ended with divorce.

He had a daughter named Wendy and loved to take her to Enatai Beach Park. She carried her fishing tools in a little black purse, and father and daughter spent hours on the old pier.

"I held my pieces together to raise my daughter," he says. "After she left for college, I lost purpose in life."

At one point, he found himself sleeping in his car and developed a routine of eating one meal at Jack in the Box and skipping the next three. He battled the VA for medical treatment for his physical and mental problems.

No one was ever convicted of raping him. No one reached out to help him. He felt betrayed by his own government.

In 2004, he tried again to end his life, this time with alcohol.

"I have service-connected problems," he says. "I should be able to get help. I've had to learn how to live with the pain. I have not felt like I deserved anything.

"They treat all of us this way. That's why so many of us are committing suicide."

His rape went unacknowledged in his military records. It wasn't until last year that the Veterans Administration recognized that Williams had been sexually assaulted. He was given a 70% disability rating for post-traumatic stress disorder and a 40% rating for lower back impairment. The VA said it based its review on the informed opinion of psychiatrists and statements from Williams' mother and a fellow Air Force recruit.

"We have therefore conceded corroboration of these traumas," the VA said.

One of Williams' former therapists, Dr. Robert Baize, says Williams will need counseling the rest of his life. He was suicidal twice. He could be again.

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Men are victims, too

Williams and other survivors of sexual assault and suicide are speaking out to help prevent more suffering and death.

Two Wristbands
Williams' disability stems partly from his rape. "Justice Denied" is a film focusing on male victims.
Stuart Isett for CNN

Some told their stories in the critically acclaimed documentary "The Invisible War," which featured victims of military sexual assault. Another emotionally exhausting film, "Justice Denied," focused specifically on male victims.

The men in "Justice Denied" believe that the power of the military, coupled with ignorance in society about the devastating effects of sexual assault on men, has resulted in government failure to address what they call a super-silent epidemic.

The pressure for male victims to keep it all inside is enormous, says Brian Lewis, 33, the first male rape survivor to testify before Congress.

He was raped in August 2000 by a superior noncommissioned officer aboard the USS Frank Cable. He was given a personality disorder diagnosis and discharged from the Navy after he reported the crime.

"Men are still invisible and ignored as survivors of military sexual trauma," Lewis told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March.

He believes that America as a culture has moved beyond blaming female victims for sexual assault but not male victims, and especially not men in the military. They are trained to be tough, to kill.

"I think the general public expects men in the military to defend themselves and are not seen as a victim of a crime," he says.

Or they are seen as being weak or homosexual.

"It's not about sex," Lewis says. "It's about power and control."

Some are perceived as liars. Lewis remembers a psychiatrist at the Naval Medical Center in San Diego telling him that he had made up his story.

"I was there to seek help, and he had basically put a knife in my heart. I don't think I have any words to describe what that moment felt like."

He, like Williams, tried to hang himself. He survived because he didn't know how to tie a proper knot.

"That is a horrible thing for a Navy guy to admit," Lewis says.

He can muster a joke now that he is speaking out, trying to get Congress to pass legislation -- known as the STOP Act -- that would take the reporting, investigation, prosecution and oversight of sexual assault cases out of the chain of command and place it under the jurisdiction of an autonomous oversight committee.

"The military is fundamentally incapable of addressing the crime of sexual assault because the entire justice system is rigged around a commanding officer's authority," Lewis says. "That officer has to choose between two people who are telling opposite stories.

Williams Street
Williams' sexual assault wasn't recognized by the VA for 46 years. He may always need counseling.
Stuart Isett for CNN

"I carry my discharge as an official and permanent symbol of shame, on top of the trauma of the physical attack, the retaliation and its aftermath," Lewis told lawmakers on the Hill. "I fear it will be discussed when I apply for law school, when I apply to take the bar exam, even when I apply for a job, and I wonder what opportunities it may destroy for me. No one should be forced to undergo such painful and inappropriate treatment."

Williams knows how rape can destroy the life of a young man like Lewis. He stands as testament.

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A coward dies a thousand deaths

The car turns right onto 117th Avenue in Bellevue's Newport Hills neighborhood and stops at No. 5031. It's the house Williams' parents purchased after the family moved from California in 1965.

Williams steps out of the car, straightens his Scooby-Doo tie. He thinks he should be dressed well in public.

He looks at the towering oak in the front yard.

"I planted that in September of '65," Williams says. "It was only 6 feet tall then." Now, it stands at least 50 feet.

Williams likes to talk about the things he was able to accomplish in his early life. He boasts that he put up all the antennas in this neighborhood. He points to the living room of the split-level house. "I got married there, in front of the fireplace," he says.

A neighbor, curious about strangers parked outside, walks up to Williams. "May I help you?"

"Oh, we're just looking," he says. "I used to live in that house. I joined the military from there. I'm a Vietnam-era veteran."

It feels good for Williams to say that aloud. He lives burdened by guilt that he never shipped out for a combat tour with the rest of the guys; that he got to live when others died. Vietnam, he says, "That's unfinished business."

He borrows from Shakespeare. "A coward dies a thousand deaths; a brave man but once. When you are told you are a coward, you die those thousand deaths."

It's about to rain. Williams' wispy white hair flutters in the breeze. Tears stream down his gaunt face.

He doesn't know whether the assistant drill sergeant who raped him is alive still. He'd like to show him X-rays of his broken body. He'd like to tell him the horror within that will never die.

Outside his old house, he says goodbye to the curious stranger and begins to fold up his walker to put in the back seat. Things, Williams tells the man, aren't always what they appear to be.

As a symbol of his troubles, he wears an orange wristband on his left arm with the number of a veterans' crisis line. Next to it is another band with the name of the film he is in: "Justice Denied." He makes sure the two always overlap.

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